Thoughts about “disposable” masks and other litter collected on Victoria’s streets.
I DON’T PICK UP CONDOMS. David Sedaris does.
I began the practice of picking up litter years ago and redoubled my refuse gathering after reading about Sedaris’s efforts around the countryside at his home in Surrey, England. Compared to Sedaris, I’m a dilettante.
Sedaris sets out with a metal stick with a grabber at the end, a garbage bag, and a Fitbit. He walks for hours, picking up everything. He even plucks condoms from hedgerows. After years of toil, he’s been honoured by having his name placed on a garbage truck. His is one of the cleanest areas in England because of his work.
Returning with my family from a seemingly litter-filled Midwest of the US to Canada in 1970, I was glad to be restored to a landscape free of misplaced rubbish. Later when I began teaching, I had my students read an amusing essay by the New York writer Russell Baker in which he wonders at Toronto cab drivers who quote Shakespeare and at streets free of the disfiguration of garbage. In his 1979 article “Nice Place to Visit,” Baker writes, “It seems never to have occurred to anybody in Toronto that garbage exists to be heaved into the streets. One can drive for miles without seeing so much as a banana peel in the gutter or a discarded newspaper whirling in the wind.”
But no more.
Now litter swirls across my hometown of Victoria, clogging up storm sewers and adorning cypress hedges. Before the pandemic, the City tried to ban plastic bags. But the Canadian Plastic Bag Association challenged the ban in BC’s top court, and the City lost. Its appeal of the ruling was rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada. Until the courts issued their judgement, trees and streets around my local grocery store were momentarily liberated from white-balloon- and flag-like forms entangled in vegetation and hanging from overhead wires.
Now we are again awash with plastic bags, a product made from oil that ends up as deadly waste. A single plastic bag takes over 500 years to disintegrate in a landfill. It is estimated that plastic bags kill 100,000 marine animals a year.
I began picking up garbage years ago. I redoubled my efforts on retiring, becoming fanatically committed to tidying any place I walked, that is, until the mystery disease arrived. With the lockdown last March, I averted my eyes on my daily walks, trying not to see the coffee cups, advertising leaflets, batteries, and pop cans. I tried to train my gaze away from the unsightly. I took routes I thought were less likely to be marked by waste.
But there aren’t any. Litter can be found on every street and in every park. The excess reality of our lives spills out all around us.
Moira Walker doing her pandemic walk and garbage collection
Finally, like everyone, I relaxed into the pandemic. Oh, I still leap aside when I meet anyone on the sidewalk, and I don’t shop for the most part, though I never much did. I have a cloth mask in my coat pocket and another in my purse. I regularly wash them along with my fold-up, recyclable cloth grocery bag.
And sometime after the initial lockdown, I began picking up litter again. Paper cups with plastic lids. Plastic straws. Plastic bags of dog poo, sometimes left just beside a city waste can. Empty cigarette packages. Many, many packages. A baby’s “disposable” diaper tossed on the grass boulevard.
My neighbourhood is well served by garbage receptacles, which are regularly emptied. But no matter. A certain group of people prefer to drop their waste on the street, rather than keep it in their car, tuck it in their pocket, or use a public garbage can.
Since the pandemic, the new item on the street are so-called “disposable” masks, a nightmare land-fill item that combines paper, metal, and polymers. The middle or filtering layer is made up of micro- and nanofibers. These masks are already getting into waterways from which they reach the freshwater and marine environment, adding to the presence of plastics in the water. By 2050, scientists have estimated there’ll be more plastic than fish in the oceans.
I try not to get angry when I stoop to pick up these unnecessary masks.
Strangers in cars and fellow pedestrians often shout out thanks to me for my outdoor, volunteer janitorial work. I don’t know how to respond to them.
I wish people wouldn’t buy half the stuff I pick up. I wish, if they must buy it, they didn’t discard it moments later on our grass verges, streets, and sidewalks.
I wish companies were made responsible for harmful, unnecessary packaging they produce. Why, for instance, is a small amount of milk now sold in plastic bottles, rather than a cardboard cartoon? Why did the company that produces Fisherman’s Friend switch from paper enclosures to unfriendly metallic foil packages?
In the meantime, my neighbourhood streets are calling me. I still haven’t had a garbage truck named after me.
Moira Walker is a retired Camosun College instructor. An oral storyteller, she’s told stories at The Flame, UNO Festival, and Royal BC Museum. She’s about to complete an MFA from the University of King’s College in Halifax, NS.